Building and maintaining a culture of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in higher education is hard. The challenges to this important work may even seem insurmountable in our current political climate. Even beyond the overt backlash against DEI as currently seen in the campaign against Critical Race Theory (CRT)—a concept used as a catch-all for attempts to block both the teaching and learning about race and racism as well as the restructuring of our institutions to address it—the more generalized fear of even opening up challenging conversations about race is potentially the greater and more persistent challenge.
The most common approach to DEI in higher education implemented by consultants and through internal initiatives is essentially the development of a kind of Racism 101 based on the rationale that if white faculty, administrators, and staff are informed about implicit bias, white privilege, and structural racism, they will then be open and ready to do the hard work required for change.
We get it. The directness of this approach makes perfect sense and—especially for those in our communities who are black, indigenous, or persons of color (BIPOC)—the urgency of change is overwhelmingly pressing, but is it really working?
The verdict is likely still out given the relative newness of many DEI programs, but we hear time and time again how DEI attempts in higher education have stalled, were implemented superficially, or were abandoned before starting when there was a lack of support.
The problem is compounded when resistance to DEI work is treated by advocates of DEI as a spasm of white fragility that should (even must) be disregarded. We get this too. The fact that people, especially those in education, often reveal themselves as being unable to accept painful truths when confronted with them (or to even allow them to be heard in the first place) is deeply disappointing and frustrating. But if this conflict is seen as inevitable, and the opponents conceived of as fundamentally undeserving of care and consideration, can we ever get our institutions to truly work as one in creating a sense of belonging for all?
We absolutely believe in the importance of transforming institutions of higher education through knowledge about the historical and current realities of structural racism, but we have found that this cannot serve as the beginning, let alone the total focus, of effective DEI efforts. There is simply too much distrust, defensiveness, and fear to allow the hard work to ever really begin at scale.
If you want your people to do the hard work, you need to give them the tools.
Our approach to working with colleges and universities on their DEI initiatives relies on first equipping teams with what we believe are two critical tools for enabling successful collaboration in this challenging terrain: Interculturalism and Mindfulness.
Unlike Multiculturalism which looks to celebrate the uniqueness of different cultures and their histories, Interculturalism has a strong foundation in the social sciences and is premised on the fact that every culture has different values/ways of engaging with the world that can be unpacked and understood. From an intercultural perspective there is no “right way” globally, and we need to be able to navigate those features of difference to successfully engage in a global world.
Many colleges and universities already include intercultural competency as a core student outcome. We see great value in taking that even further to equip all members of your learning community—including faculty, administrators, and staff—with this important skill of shifting perspective. The benefits include greater:
- self-awareness of one’s own values, needs, and expectations when working with others
- sensitivity to and acceptance of different ways of relating
- opportunities for collaboration through identifying the approaches best suited for given tasks/challenges
- overall sense of belonging
Far from limiting our understanding of difference to national cultures, an intercultural perspective provides the vocabulary needed to navigate diverse environments and topics including cultural features related to gender, ethnicity, age, and even region.
Interculturalism makes a solid foundation for effective DEI by building self-awareness of one’s personal values, the ability to understand and be explicit about existing organizational culture, and the ultimate acceptance (or at least negotiation) of other values and perspectives.
Mindfulness (or perhaps better characterized as mindful practices) is something that is increasingly understood as valuable for one’s individual health based on its capacity to reduce stress and enhance overall well-being.
Without delving into the scientific underpinnings and psychological research, the ability to become aware of what we are sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment, can facilitate the processing of challenging emotions and enable increased compassion for oneself and others.
The application of mindful practices when it comes to work in DEI is clear. Confronting issues of race, power, privilege, and identity is painful. Building the capacity to recognize hard emotions when they arise without being overwhelmed by them is absolutely essential in allowing needed difficult conversations to occur and ultimately generate positive outcomes.
We believe these two tools are essential in supporting effective DEI in higher education. Where interculturalism provides a framework to analyze and cognitively understand cultural difference, mindful practices provide the emotional–even physical–support for managing the pain, doubt, mistrust, and fear that inevitably arise when navigating change of any kind, but especially when it comes to work around DEI.
With these supports in place, the possibility of integrating important information about specific institutional and societal wide structural racism—the really hard work—becomes more broadly realizable. Placing training in Interculturalism and Mindfulness at the beginning of our engagements makes it possible for colleges and universities to both blunt the political wariness of DEI initiatives and harness the power of broadly conceived ideas of diversity to enable a sense of belonging for all.
ACEI Global Consulting Group is a division of the Academic Credentials Evaluation Institute, Inc. (ACEI) offering expertise in the following specialties: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI); Mindfulness Training; Media and Brand Consulting; and Program-Curriculum Review to interested institutions and organizations around the globe. For more information on ACEI Global Consulting Group, visit our website www.acei-global-consulting.org
The Academic Credentials Evaluation Institute, Inc. (ACEI) was found in 1994 and is based in Los Angeles, CA, USA. ACEI is a full-service company providing complete and integrated services in the areas of international education research and credential evaluation. www.acei-global.org